School Board Sizes Up Enrollment

By Samuel Haut 

Lower Merion School District meeting. Photo: Sam Haut.

As student enrollment rates increase, Lower Merion struggles to find solutions to accommodate class sizes. On Wednesday night, the school board for Lower Merion School District held a public meeting to tackle class size issues in middle and high schools.

The event, which drew about 30 people, was the sixth meeting this year in the series “Students, Today’s Challenges.” The previous meeting, held on May 27, centered on class size problems facing the elementary schools.

Throughout the night, presentations were given by each of the four middle and high schools in the district. The principal of Bala Cynwyd Middle School, Jason Potten, gave the first presentation.

The main problem faced by all the schools was the lack of space as a result of increases in student populations. With Bala Cywnyd, Potten addressed the issue of traffic flow several times.

“In a building that was built in 1939, we have to consider flow, because … the hallways are narrow. So if you’re thinking about moving 900 students to that building, it’s important to note that,” Potten said.

At Welsh Valley, Principal Christopher Hall said they took steps to address overcrowding by adding 12 new classrooms in 2015. Even with the added rooms, they are still facing classroom shortages. “As recently as this past school year, we’ve needed to convert the wrestling room into a challenge classroom and we also needed to convert one of our large group instruction rooms into a small group instruction room,” Hall said.

When it came to the high schools, the issue that was most prevalent was how to accommodate for so many students seeking to take science classes. At Lower Merion High School, Principal Sean Hughes said they have had to add new classrooms for biology and chemistry. “What’s our biggest concern? Well it’s the eight classrooms that have biology and chemistry,” said Hughes. Hughes presented the numbers of the projected trends of the two academic fields and said that it is “the science field overall that has led us to use outside the building which has led us to requesting the DAO (district administration offices) for building space as we get larger.”

For Lower Merion, the enrollment in science classes has increased over the past decade. According to Hughes,  77 percent of high school seniors were taking extra science classes in 2006. In 2016, the number rose to 95 percent. The uptick in interest for science courses is the main reason for adding new science classes in the DAO in recent years.

In addition, the schools are not able to hold all-school assemblies, as their class sizes exceed the size of their auditoriums. In the case of Lower Merion, Hughes said:

We cannot do an all- school assembly in the auditorium, actually we haven’t since we moved into the building. So right now, with the enrollment, we’ll do 9 and 10 together, then 11 and 12. Eventually as we get larger, it will be a single set grade level assembly, which is not a big deal in the high school.

Hughes made a point of mentioning how at Lower Merion, they have several teachers that share classrooms. “Not every teacher in the high school, which we were used to in the old building, has their own classroom. We do share classrooms currently. We have about eight to nine teachers that do share classrooms,” Hughes said.

At Harriton High School, a similar picture was put on display as Principal Scott Weinstein also discussed the importance of their science courses:

Trends are pretty similar [to Lower Merion] in math and sciences. One hundred eighty-two students are taking more than one science class and this number is trending upwards, and as our enrollment grows, we anticipate our growth to be similar.

Based on the trends in enrollment, Harriton will reach its peak class size of 1,589 in the 2025-2026 school year. The expected increase in class size over the next several years will cause Harriton to need two additional biochemistry labs by 2021 to meet student demand. Weinstein said that by 2025, they will have to deny 240 students the opportunity of taking an extra science course.

The cost of the additional classrooms needed to meet Harriton’s demand by 2021 — four classrooms or two biochemistry labs — would be around $5.1 million. However, if Harriton were to add six classrooms, which was proposed to meet future needs for more rooms, the cost would be $7 million.

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